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 The Drifting Boat

The Mediterranean exodus is a complex social and political problem, but it is possible to get a working grasp of what is happening if we want to


The deaths of seven hundred migrants off the coast of Libya in May 2016, trying to cross the Mediterranean, was a depressing consequence of the deal struck by the EU with Turkey which closed off the shorter route into Europe via the Greek islands.


These deaths may be added to the thousands who have already drowned trying to get across the sea. If a ship carrying tourists had sunk, losing hundreds, it would never be forgotten. But these people are, to most of us, faceless and nameless. It is not that we don’t care; few are that callous. We simply don’t know what to do or say that would make a tangible difference.

What is going on?
Perhaps the first task is one of understanding. This is an extraordinarily complex social and political problem, but it is possible to get a working grasp of what is happening if we want to. The Guardian newspaper has astutely created a migrant correspondent and his book The New Odyssey helps those who read it to understand the people, the stories and the journeys which are made, often on an epic scale.


Patrick Kingsley prefers to use the term migrant rather than refugee of those who risk the Mediterranean crossing because we cannot make easy judgments of the reasons people leave their own countries. A large majority are refugees in their fleeing from the credible risk or actual experience of war and persecution. Syrians, Afghans and Eritreans form a sizeable number of these and Kingsley’s account of life in Eritrea – a country closed to wider scrutiny – is grim reading. Anyone trying to escape from Eritrea has grounds to be considered a refugee but we know so much less about it than other places.


Many arriving at the shore of the Mediterranean have already taken an incalculable risk traversing the Sahara Desert, where people smugglers, bandits and kidnappers often rob and murder their victims. Those who nevertheless arrive in Libya as economic migrants, wanting a better material life, can find themselves turned into genuine refugees once they encounter the violence which rocks Libya today. Some are so traumatised by their experience of getting through the desert that they would rather take their chance on the sea than return home.

Once in the hands of the people smugglers, there is an interminable wait in awful, confined places where rape and torture may occur. Those who make it to the boats must have money behind them to make the journey, which explains why it was several years after the inception of the Syrian civil war that the crossings became commonplace – people took several years to save up the money even though they had made their decision some time earlier.


Footage from the Italian coastguards of a capsizing boat in May 2016 demonstrated the deep peril all migrants at sea are exposed to. Boats are critically overloaded to maximise returns for the smugglers. People, crushed together, must not make sudden moves lest boats turn over. The Italian footage itself bore witness to the particular risk which emerges at the point of rescue, as people rush to be saved. Those below deck, who have paid the least, do not tend to survive a sinking. All are hungry, dehydrated, filthy, scared.

What induces people to take such risks? There is much talk in western media about the ‘pull’ effect of copious job opportunities and generous welfare provision, but the words of one Syrian refugee to Kingsley is a sobering counter to this:


Even if there was a (European) decision to drown the migrant boats, there will still be people going by boat because the individual considers himself dead already. Right now Syrians consider themselves dead. Maybe not physically, but psychologically and socially (a Syrian) is a destroyed human being; he’s reached the point of death. So I don’t think that even if they decided to bomb migrant boats it would change people’s decision to go.

As long as there is strife, disorder and persecution in populous countries, there will be an inexorable ‘push’ to get away to peaceful places where children can grow up as they should be able to. This shows there will be no speedy, clean answers to the great humanitarian challenge of our era.


The complexity of the issues should not excuse receiving nations from agreeing some values and policies by which to tackle the problems. That European countries have found it hard to establish policies shows their values are brittle and lack coherence. It feels like every nation for itself in defending borders, re-routing and containing this growing challenge.


Many of us look on, wondering where Jesus Christ is in all this. Of one thing we may be sure. He is in the boat, shivering from the wetness, puked and urinated over by the frightened people around him, drifting on the waters. We cannot save and welcome everyone, but any nation which aspires to offer a response rooted in Christian values and culture has to make a credible effort to do its part alongside others. I was a stranger and you took me in.



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